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75 years of Social Security and UW’s key role

August 10, 2010 By Stacy Forster

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is considered the intellectual home of the nation’s Social Security program, which turns 75 on Saturday, Aug. 14. The Wisconsin Idea was central to the development of Social Security, and the expertise of University of Wisconsin economists was key to the creation of the social insurance program that now benefits more than 50 million Americans a year.

At the height of the Great Depression, Wisconsin’s Arthur Altmeyer, assistant secretary of labor, helped select university colleague Edwin Witte as chair of the Committee on Economic Security, which created the program. Because of his work in Wisconsin, Witte was uniquely qualified to steer the program’s creation, and he drew on decades of Wisconsin research that showed how government could play a role in offering social insurance for its citizens. Witte, considered the “father of Social Security,” spent five months in 1934 crafting the Social Security legislation, which was signed into law on Aug. 14, 1935.

The following UW–Madison experts are available to talk about the 75th anniversary of Social Security and UW–Madison’s role in its creation:

  • John Witte, professor of political science and public affairs, 608-262-5715, Witte is the grandson of Edwin Witte and can reflect on the program’s current state in addition to its history.
  • Pamela Herd, 608-262-9451,, associate professor of public affairs and sociology. Herd has studied Social Security for more than a decade and is part of a network of researchers who are studying what policy proposals might improve the program. Her work has been focused on inequalities that are built into the system and the groups that are vulnerable to those gaps.
  • William Jones, 608-263-1784,, associate professor of history. Jones, an expert in 20th century U.S. history, can discuss the importance of Social Security to the New Deal and the broader effort to address the Great Depression, as well as its relation to the struggles for race and gender equality after World War II.
  • Robert Asen, 608-263-4518,, professor of communication arts.  Asen’s research explores the relationships between public deliberation and social and economic inequalities.  He is the author of “Invoking the Invisible Hand: Social Security and the Privatization Debates.”


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